Inishowen’s district court judge has described the maximum fines for revenue and customs offences as “totally inappropriate” and “unhelpful to the administration of justice.”
Judge Paul Kelly was speaking at Buncrana District Court in the case of Aisling Bradley, 2 Hawthorn Heights, Newtowncunningham, who was charged with failing to stop for customs officers on 28th January 2014 at Cashel na Cor.
Judge Kelly had imposed a fine of 150 euro but was informed by State solicitor Ciaran Liddy that the maximum fine on a guilty verdict was 5,000 euro and the minimum was 2,500 euro.
Judge Kelly described this as an “excessive punishment” in the circumstances and imposed the Probation Act, directing Mr Liddy to convey his views regarding the fines to customs and revenue.
He also said there was a “tendency in this district to treat customs officers with a high degree of disdain,” adding they had an “unpopular, difficult job” and it “beholds the community to comply with them.”
On Tuesday, the court heard from customs and excise officer Edward Kealy, who said that on the date in question, he had been on duty with officer Bernadette Murray at Supervalu car park.
At 1pm, he saw a white Volvo SC60 jeep in the car park, which he knew to be an unregistered vehicle. When Bradley exited the supermarket and walked to the vehicle, Mr Kealy produced his ID card and in the “course of speaking” to Bradley she started the vehicle.
He asked her to remain stationary and she reversed the jeep and drove out of the supermarket car park.
The two officers contacted Gardai and “informed them of the situation.”
Officer Murray said she knew Bradley and was aware of a business premises at Umnricam, Bradley Transport, to which she was connected. They drove in that direction and encountered Bradley again at Cashel na Cor, as she was coming down a side road.
Mr Kealy said he got out of the patrol car and attempted to stop the vehicle.
He said: “Bradley reversed away from me at first. The road was blocked by another vehicle.
“She drove in my direction and I was attempting to signal her to stop the vehicle. She drove on to the footpath around myself and the patrol car, which was in the middle of the road and drove off.”
The officers then travelled on to the business premises accompanied by Gardai and interviewed Bradley.
Mr Kealy said he asked who owned the vehicle and she said ‘Aisling Bradley Ltd,’ with an address in Derry. She said the jeep was a Northern Ireland company vehicle, the tax had been paid and “all was above board.”
Mr Kealy said he asked Bradley if she had received a letter from the revenue commissioners, from Danny Kenny, based in Dundalk, refusing temporary exemption in June, 2013, to which she replied: ‘Right.”
Mr Kealy said he asked Bradley if there was “any reason” why the vehicle was not registered in the State, to which she replied:”I can’t see where it makes sense for a Northern Ireland company to register a car in the Free State.”
The vehicle was detained and subsequently seized.
The court was told it was released to Bradley when she paid the sum of 3,800 euro. This was not the VRT payment.
Defence solicitor Ciaran MacLochlainn put it to Mr Kealy that he was wearing a beanie hat and a bomber jacket, which did not have a customs logo. Mr Kealy confirmed he was but said both had the customs logo on them and were part of their uniform. He confirmed he was also wearing combat trousers and black boots, also part of the “official issue” uniform.
Mr MacLochlainn put it to him that a customs officer’s uniform would ordinarily be a jacket, white hat and shirt and tie. He replied that they had a number of State issued uniforms and three hats - the beanie, a baseball cap and the white hat. He said their wearing of a white shirt and tie was for courts and ports and airports.
Officer Bernadette Murray then gave evidence, stating that she was aware Bradley had been refused a temporary exemption order, on June 17th 2013.
She said Aisling Bradley was known to her. Ms Murray said when she put the issue of the exemption order to Bradley, she replied: “Bernie, you know this.”
“She knows me and I know her,” she said.
Ms Murray also corroborated Mr Kealy’s earlier evidence relating to the failure to stop at Cashel na Cor.
Mr McLochlainn asked Ms Murray why they had been in Supervalu car park, to which she replied they “often go in to see what cars are there.” She said when she saw Bradley’s vehicle, she knew it been refused temporary exemption.
Mr MacLochlainn put it to Ms Murray that revenue legislation states that “cases of this nature,” should be, on first encounter, dealt with by way of a formal warning.
Ms Murray replied that it had not been her first encounter with Bradley’s vehcile and she had seen it before “maybe twice.”
She said she did not stop the vehicle on these occasions as she was “going elsewhere” and had other duties.
Mr MacLochlainn also put it to Mrs Murray that Bradley was told she could appeal the temporary exemption refusal but this could only take place if she paid the full VRT first. Mrs Murray confirmed this was the case.
Mr MacLochlainn told Judge Kelly there were “two issues” in the case, that of whether Mr Kealy was in uniform and that the summons said Bradley failed to “comply with the request” of Mr Kealy. “No request was made,” he said.
Mr Liddy responded by stating that the request had been made as Mr Kealy gave evidence he had exited the vehcile and raised his hand, requiring her to stop.
He said the extent of the uniform had been defined and “vary from occasion to occasion.” Judge Kelly said he was “satisifed beyond doubt” that Mr Kealy had been in uniform, had shown his ID and Ms Murray was known to Bradley.
He said Mr Kealy had also requested Bradley to stop.
Mr MacLochlainn pointed out that Bradley had completed a pro-social driving course, had been already prosecuted by Gardai on a charge of careless driving and also paid a “penalty” of 3,800 euro for the release of the vehicle, which she later sold in Northern Ireland.
Judge Kelly, in summing up, said he had “frequent occasion in this court” to see the way people interact with customs officers and has “seen a tendency in this district to treat them with a high degree of disdain.”
He said the officers were doing an “unpopular job” and have on many occasions greater powers than Gardai but “people think they can treat them with a cavalier attitude.”
He added: “Until such times as the law changes it has to be enforced and obeyed.”
He added Bradley “knew full well” she was dealing with customs and revenue and added he was “conscious” of the fact she has paid a “significant penalty” in this case.
At this point, Judge Kelly fined Bradley 150 euro but on being told of the maximum and minimum fines by Mr Liddy, applied the Probation Act instead.